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Coffee & sprouts

An edited version of this article appeared in Green Magazine #39

Nick Browning of Cottage Botanical is the green thumb behind an innovative onsite greenhouse at Melbourne café, East Elevation. 

It’s common for cafes and restaurants to have their own kitchen gardens and produce seasonal herbs and vegetables to feature on the menu. But at East Elevation in East Brunswick, the concept has been taken to a whole new level.

Shiitake, and blue and pink King Oyster mushrooms grow on logs. They unfurl in dark, moist bags, and fruit in jars. Microgreens – tiny delicate greens that are sprouted from germinated seeds, and consumed in their entirety – in various stages of sprouting green up the space, and passionfruit vines curl and weave through the exposed trusses .

The gabled roof space above the kitchen has been turned into a mushroom- and microgreens-producing greenhouse. Its unique bounty is for adornment, rather than menu staples, and often features at East Elevation’s presentation nights. Customers can also buy microgreens to take home.

The café proper occupies the ground floor, and the greenhouse’s yield can be seen here, too. More logs crowded with mushrooms hang from the ceiling. Sprouts flourish in wooden boxes and upcycled gas bottles and preserving jars, and greens spill out of an old wheelbarrow on the footpath out front.

Nick Browning is the green thumb behind the innovations. His company, Cottage Botanical, specialises in edible interiors and garden design inspired by the aesthete of edible and ornamental plants and flowers typical of an English Cottage garden.

It took Nick six months of experimentation to get East Elevation’s greenhouse up to full speed. Take the microgreens. There are 11 types in production – snow pea, sunflower, radish, lentil, popcorn, rocket, red cabbage, beetroot, basil, wheatgrass and buckwheat – and each require different amounts of heat, light and time to grow.

They also have different lifespans. Radish is the shortest at just five days from germination to harvest, while basil can take two to three weeks. Nick plants crops twice a week, to be sure of a constant flow.

“I soak the seeds quite heavily in water, then put them under blue spectrum UV lights. It’s warm and intense; perfect for sprouting. Once the leaves have passed the small stage, they’re moved into a less intense environment.”

And then there are the mushrooms. Nick cultivates East Elevation’s mushrooms in three ways: in bags, on logs, and in jars. Growing mushrooms in bags is a style of growing that is popular in the US. The café keeps its plastic bags, and the crew brings in plastic bags saved from home. They’re filled with coffee grinds from the café and cocoa shells from the onsite chocolatier, Monsieur Truffe.

“Coffee grinds make a perfect substrate for mushroom cultivation, because they’re full of cellulose, which mushrooms thrive on. I mix coffee grinds with pasteurised straw, sterilise it in a beer barrel, then put it in used plastic bags, along with the mushroom spawn,” says Nick.

“Growing King Oyster mushrooms in jars have been the most complicated thing, because the conditions have to be perfect. There’s a lot of preparation,” he continues.

“I put a mixture of sawdust, gypsum, wood shavings and wheat bran in the jars, put the jars put in a pressure cooker to sterilise the substrate which stops contamination from molds, then I inoculate them with grain spawn; that’s spores germinated on rye grain.”

Nick’s next project for East Elevation? It’s a more traditional one – design and planting of an unused orchard down the road from the café with interesting varieties of seasonal heirloom vegetables. In keeping with the Cottage style, there will be flowers too: orange blossoms, red broad bean flowers, nasturtium and borage, and roses. And they're all edible – pretty as a picture.